Saudi Arabia look to final victory as they kick off U23 Asian Cup against Tajikistan


Saudi Arabia face Tajikistan in their opening game of the U23 Asian Cup on Friday, hoping to go one better than they did last time. The team lost to South Korea in the final of the 2020 tournament just before the pandemic struck. More than three years later, a new generation of stars are in Uzbekistan looking to shake Asia.

Much has changed in the team since 2020 but Saad Al-Shehri remains the man in charge. The 42-year-old has plenty of experience in youth tournaments. He led the under-19 team to the final of the 2016 Asian Cup, where they lost to Japan.

The young Samurai Blue, who are also in Group D, will start their campaign against the UAE. It’s a tough group. The Saudi team need a good start against Tajikistan to have the best chance of finishing in the top two and progressing to the knockout stage. The final will be held on June 19 in Tashkent.

“We know that it is not going to be easy but we are ready for the challenge,” said Al-Shehri. “We have a great group of players and we are working hard. We are taking each game at a time and we are fully focused on the meeting with Tajikistan.”

There will have to be improvements over the qualification campaign, where the team squeezed through as one of the best runners-up. Losing the opening game to Kuwait put the team on the backfoot and qualification lay in the balance. However, results have been better this year with wins over Qatar, Uzbekistan and Iraq.

Unlike most of the other 15 teams in the competition, Al-Shehri’s squad has to bow to the needs of the senior side. The start of preparations for the 2022 World Cup means that the boss will be without two of his best players. Al-Shabab centre-back Hassan Tambakti has had an impressive season for the Saudi Professional League runners-up and has been taken by Herve Renard to Spain, where Saudi Arabia face Colombia on June 5 and Venezuela four days later.

He will join up with the U-23 team when the Spanish training camp is over if the Young Falcons get through the group stage. The same is true of Firas Al-Buraikan. Coach Al-Shehri would dearly love to have the Al-Fateh striker to face Tajikistan, Japan on Monday and then UAE on June 9, but he is the top Saudi striker in the league who is currently fit. His hat-trick last weekend moved him to 11 goals for the season and into the top 10 goalscorers.

That means that, with Saleh Al-Shehri out injured for the next few months, Al-Buraikan is going to be needed by the senior team for some time. Al-Shahab’s Turki Al-Ammar can perhaps be a little disappointed not to get the call from Renard but with the attacking midfielder having a great season, the senior team’s loss is the U-23 team’s gain.

Tajikistan are making their debut in the tournament. The Central Asians performed well in qualification, pushing Iran all the way for top spot. A 3-2 loss in their final game left them in second place. Coached by Mubin Ergashev, who led Istiklol to victory over Al-Hilal in last year’s Asian Champions League, Tajikistan will be a tricky opponent. Istiklol striker Rustam Soirov is sure to ask questions of the backline.

There will also be plenty of attention on the game between UAE and Japan. The Samurai Blue, who defeated Saudi Arabia 1-0 in a March friendly, have lots of talent in their ranks but have brought a young team, with the majority of the squad aged 20 and below. UAE topped their qualification group and have looked good in preparation.

“The opening game with Japan is a hugely important game for us,” said UAE manager Jamal Buhendi. “We are fully focused on getting off to a good start before the games against Japan and Saudi Arabia.”

Coach Denis Silva also is aware of the need to hit the ground running. “There is no easy group in the finals, and all 16 teams qualified well and have what it takes to compete,” the Spaniard said at the draw. “We are aware of the strength of the opponents in the group such as the Saudi Arabia and Japanese national teams, and we also know about the great ambitions of Tajikistan, who are making their first appearance in the finals.”

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